Topknots on boys and girls. Talk of cocaine tours. Electronic music pulsing by the pool.
I sat in my hostel in Santa Marta and thought, fuck it, let’s go somewhere else.
I had come to Santa Marta after spending a few glorious days in Riohacha, Cabo de la Vela and Punta Gallinas. Sure, there were backpackers in those places too. But Santa Marta, a popular base for visiting Tayrona National Park’s famous beaches, felt like too much. Too much of the same hostel conversation, too much of the same people headed to the same places.
Mompós wasn’t exactly unheard of – a Google search turns up reasonably detailed travel stories in NYT, The Telegraph, and the Guardian – but I took as a good sign that the first hostel staff I spoke to didn’t know how to get there from Santa Marta, while the second, on hearing that I planned to head there, lit up. “It’s fantastic! Not enough people make the effort to go,” she said.
Coupled with the fact that I would run into the Colombian long weekend crowd, scooting out of Santa Marta and skipping Tayrona seemed like a good idea. This was Caribbean Colombia. There would be other nice beaches.
I wasn’t sure how much I would like Mompós, officially known as Santa Cruz de Mompox. People have described it as Cartagena without the crowds, an astonishingly well preserved architectural jewel, a forgotten city that was magic realism brought to life, immortalised by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who adored the Rio Magdalena, the sinuous river that was a key waterway for trade.
Sitting in the middle of the river, Mompós was one of colonial era Colombia’s most important cities until silting made the river less ideal for transporting goods. Its glory days have ended, but its forgotten status helped preserve the town’s architecture. Its historic centre has UNESCO World Heritage site status – in Colombia, the only other colonial site to hold that honour is Cartagena.
But I’m not a big one for colonial architecture – it’s always beautiful and charming but few are actually spectacular to me, and I wondered if I was making a mistake with this detour.
It turns out getting there isn’t hard actually, thanks to a door-to-door taxi service run by a mystery man called Omaira, who will arrange for you to be picked up at your accommodations in Santa Marta and drop you off anywhere you like in Mompós – a journey that takes around six hours, and costs COP70,000 (about S$32). A similar service, called the Toto Express, runs from Cartagena. The website of La Casa Amarilla, a boutique hotel in Mompós, has the best advice for getting there on its website.
So off I went, sitting in a car with his man, his wife, their infant daughter, and two other passengers. The man was on his way home and I supposed he took up the gig to make some cash on the side. I thought it was a brilliant arrangement, like a safer, paid version of hitchhiking and a great use of resources.
Well, I went to Mompós for the quiet, and I found it. During the hottest hours of the day, it is practically deserted. You understand all the “time stood still”-type descriptions of the place. The tall beautiful wooden doors are shut. The windows, with their ornate iron grills, are shuttered. The heat and humidity seem to muffle time itself. Only the Rio Magdalena is alive, the water flowing like silk.
But evening is when Mompós comes alive. The air cools, and out come the chairs on the patios, as townspeople settle in for a session of evening gossip. Doors and windows open to let the breeze in, music plays. On weekends and holidays, the tables at the Plaza Concepcion fill up with diners.
At the Plaza Santo Domingo, grills sizzle with meat and and blenders whirr to life to whip up iced juices. The nearby tienda does a brisk business selling blessedly cold beers. Mompós loses its nostalgic black-and-white photo prettiness and feels less frozen in time, more like a living town.
And then there’s the Rio Magdalena itself. Sailing down its tributaries is a glorious way to experience its beauty – birdwatchers will delight in the sheer variety of bird life to be found on the river. This time of the year (June), the waters rise, leaving trees, fields and the odd house partially submerged, and trees become bushes.
The river then empties into a vast cienaga, its glassine surface a perfect mirror for the sky. Here the water is free of mud, and a swim in the lake washes off the stickiness of the day.
If I loved Cartagena for its verve and colour, then Mompós is the perfect bookend – its gentler, cousin. It lulls rather than dazzles and doesn’t try too hard. Probably that’s why everyone leaves feeling more than a little in love with the place.